Doubt: A History

Author: Jennifer Michael Hecht

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Published: 2003

I read it: June 2017

doubt a history

I had this on my shelf for quite a while, having snagged it at a used bookstore once while also vaguely recalling a positive review of it in an issue of Skeptic magazine. Then last November, a particular event happened in our culture that made me want to read some history, not just for the facts, but for some faint hope in discovering that perhaps it will all work out okay in the end. I’m still not sure if I’ve gained any confidence in the matter, but I’m sure glad I worked through this book over the past seven months.

Hecht’s tome is specifically about the concept of religious doubt over the centuries. Right on the first page of the introduction, before the proper chapters even commence, she mentions atheists and believers. In fact, the word atheism is used so much that the book could almost have been called Atheism: A History. It certainly covers all the possible ground of doubting the gods. Hecht explains that the great doubters “seek to understand the schism between humanness and the universe” and one of her goals is to catalogue what she calls the various “graceful-life philosophies” that may allow a human to value intellectual rigor while at the same time coming to terms with mortality.

The book needs every bit of its 500 pages, as it tries to cover most of civilized time in both the Eastern and Western cultures. All the expected names show up, with delightful detours into the places where you might expect doubt least of all, such as within the major religions themselves. The author has sparked my interest in reading the book of Ecclisiastes, and of course lays out all the various analyses of the book of Job. Another dominant text is Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, which has inspired a huge number of thinkers over the years. Then there are all the names I’d never heard, the lost players in the saga of religious doubt. Take Hubert Harrison, active in the 1920s, once nicknamed “the Black Socrates.” Or the generally overlooked females like Annie Besant (“Away with these gods and godlings; they are worse than useless. I take my stand by Truth.”), in addition to more well-known authors such as Emily Dickinson or Marian Evans (pen name George Eliot).

The section on the U.S. forefathers was shorter than I’d hoped, although perhaps that chunk of history (and the pretty clear-cut case that most of the forefathers were deists at best) is already illuminated enough. Some familiar names like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Robert Ingersoll (also celebrated in Freethinkers), and Bertrand Russell get an overview. Other touch points in the final pages include the doubters of Islam, like Salman Rushdie and Ibn Warraq. This book was mostly written before 2001 but published after, and Hecht acknowledges the increasing need to analyze the worrisome state of Islam in the post-9/11 world. Finally, she calls into question whether after all these centuries it’s even useful to boil things down to just “atheist” and “believer” anymore. I had wondered that myself while reading, as most atheists may be interested in more earthly subjects to apply doubt to rather than the same old religious arguments that seem less exotic the more you look into them.

The only reason I’m mentioning the modern doubters so much is because that’s what I remember most recently after having finished the book. But the ancient doubt is fascinating as well, and the reading of these histories coincided with my wife and I falling hard for the game 7 Wonders DuelWhile laying the cards and acquiring resources, I would ponder the way societies rise and fall, and most of all, how precarious it all is. There’s no guarantee that we’ll stay on a positive trajectory; entire schools of thought can be lost throughout civilizational change. It definitely helps that the book makes you feel like part of the human tradition, whatever your philosophy may be. And I haven’t even mentioned Hecht’s love for poetry and lyricism: she ties together the raw facts with sharp insights and continually brings a layer of humanism to the page. The whole thing is quite the feat, and I have various underlines and stars penciled throughout in case I need to pick up the copy again for quick inspiration.

So let’s sign off with these thoughts. Milton Steinberg wrote a fictional journey of Jewish doubt and his character Elisha is committed to the truth, yet torn. He realizes: “Free reason, my son, is a heady wine. It has failed to sustain my heart, but having drunk of it, I can never be content with a less fiery draught.” This admission of the sorrow that comes with unbelief is consoling to hear, as we try to make our way through various experiments with consciousness simply to find daily peace. In tandem, Bertrand Russell leaves us with this reassurance: “Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.” It’s often cold out here in the light of truth. Best to have a book like Hecht’s on hand to keep it all in perspective.

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